Thursday, October 30, 2008

Hocus Pocus

OK, so if you think today's music isn't 'out there' enough you're probably right. You need to go back thirty five years and check this out. Be patient - it takes off at about one minute in. This might be part of an ongoing series reminding people that the 1970s really had something to offer. You wouldn't get your boy bands trying anything like this today. They wouldn't even get close. I love it.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Musical Meme

I haven't posted in a while because I haven't anything useful to say so it's time for one of those stupid memes to pad out the flat spots in your blog. I got this one here.

Answer each question using the song titles of ONE band or singer. I choose the mighty Tom Waits.

1. Are you male or female? Gin Soaked Boy

2. Describe yourself. Just Another Sucker on the Vine

3. What do people feel when they’re around you? Tango Till They're Sore

4. How would you describe your previous relationship? Bad Liver and a Broken Heart

5. Describe your current relationship. Step Right Up

6. Where would you want to be now? Johnsburg, Illinois

7. How do you feel about love? Clap Hands

8. What’s your life like? Anywhere I Lay My Head

9. What would you ask for if you had only one wish? The One That Got Away

10. Say something wise. The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Bish Bash Bosh.....Job Done

I need a new passport. There's been much in the press in recent years regarding turmoil and delays at the passport office. I wasn't expecting an easy ride. Three weeks ago I had my business trip to India confirmed in seven week's time. I would also need a business visa but this would not be issued on a passport with less than six months to run - as was my case. However, in a week I was off to the US for two weeks for which I would need my current passport and on my return that would leave me only four weeks to get a new passport and a business visa as well. Optimistically, these would each take a minimum of two weeks each and could not be worked on concurrently.

It was with some trepidation I logged on to the Passport Office website to establish how to get through the system quickly. The normal method, by post, looked decidedly risky. Apply, and I might get my new passport in about two weeks but the website was keen to point out I shouldn't make any travel plans based on that estimate. The next option was to apply in person at The Passport Office and I should see my new passport in about a week. This looked reasonable.

Historically, a trip to the passport office to fast-track an application meant turning up as early as possible in the morning and waiting all day to be seen. The website said I must 'phone to make an appointment which I might get in a week's time. I 'phoned and talked to a nice chap who rather startled me by offering me an appointment at 7:45 the following morning. Even that was too soon for me, I didn't even have my new photos done. I settled on 11:45 instead and legged it to the Post Office to get an application form. The local photo developing shop did me some decent passport photos straight away (no smiling or showing of teeth permitted) for £5.99 and I took the application form home to peruse the requirements.

The form was a doddle. Name, address, date of birth, barely anything else was needed. As I was applying in person, I didn't even need to find somebody important to sign the back of the photos to say the gloomy, non-smiling baldy in the picture really was me. I also needed to take two other forms of ID with an address on and my current passport.

I arrived at The Passport Office this morning at 11:25, early, as advised, to get through security. A jolly man at the x-ray machine was cracking jokes but despatching people briskly through the process at an un-airport-like rate of knots. I went to the second floor with my numbered ticket. "Oh shit" I thought, this isn't an appointment, it's just a numbered ticket system meaning I'll be there for hours. I got to the second floor and the numbers board suggested I had about fifty people ahead of me in the queue. I congratulated myself on having brought a book to read while I was waiting. Five minutes later the board jumped forty numbers in one go and suddenly I was third in the queue. A few moments later and my number was called and I was off to my designated counter.

The application form had warned me I was to expect a thirty minute interview in which I would be asked testing and difficult questions to prove my identity, provenance and integrity. Identity theft is a big talking point at the moment however I was intrigued and rather looking forward to some testing good cop / bad cop interview process during which I would be grilled under a spotlight and found wanting when I could not name my third cousin's pet rabbit or something.

A spectacularly bored looking lady sat ominously behind the counter. She briefly lifted her eyes to greet me.
"Hi!" I said enthusiastically - having been in the US for the last two weeks I'd got into the habit of being nice to strangers which is not really in the British nature. Bad move I thought, false jollity with government officials is usually treated with the greatest of suspicion. I handed over the application form, passport and photos. I expected her to fix me with a steely glaze and then to get out her jeweller's eyepiece to study my documents closely for the slightest anomaly which would allow my application to be rejected. Still not a single word - except for my embarrassing and rather over-effusive "Hi!" - had been exchanged. I placed my additional forms of ID on the counter half-expecting these to be rejected as unsuitable for no good reason other than the historical determination of government departments to find fault in such things. I think she may have briefly acknowledged their existence but certainly didn't pull them over to her side of the counter to check them. Still not a word. She filled in a couple of forms, stuck on a barcode, put it all in an envelope and mumbled something to me.
"Sorry, I didn't quite catch that" I said.
"Your passport will be with you within a week" she repeated, still staring downwards at her desk.
"Take this form to the cashier" she added, handing over a slip of paper with a sum of money written on it.

I went to the deserted cashier's desk queue, paid up with my debit card and headed for the exit. I was in and out of the place in less than fifteen minutes and blinking like a startled mole in the pre-noonday sunshine. I still can't quite believe it. I'll let you know when my new passport arrives.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

And Repeat.....

Well, a missed connection in Atlanta resulting in a six hour delay gave me a departure from London Gatwick but a return to London Heathrow. A defective plane, a staff shortage at immigration, a suicide on the Heathrow Express and a stabbing in Finsbury Park further thwarted my journey home. The result was a 22 hour trip to get from towering but cloudy Colorado Springs to lo-altitude but sunny N6. An unwise attempt at a siesta when I finally got through my front door has left me dazed and confused.

I now have four weeks to trim down my physique after fifteen arduous days of American cuisine, get a new passport, obtain a business visa and repeat the whole exercise but this time in Hyderabad, India. Nice biryanis I'm told.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Colorado Springs - Day 2 - Part 2

There are several ways to get to the top of Pike's Peak. There's the 13 mile hike along Barr's Trail which would be fun but I didn't bring the right kit to go hiking and I foolishly decided to break in a new pair of shoes while here (see earlier post) and they have ripped my heels to shreds (woe is me etc.) You can drive up there which is OK I guess but somehow misses the point as it will be an interesting drive but you won't really be able to appreciate the scenery getting there, or you can let the train take the strain. We decided to take the train.

The Pike's Peak Cog Railway, since it goes straight up the side of a mountain, is obviously not your normal railway. It's a little two carriage, diesel powered train that locks into a third cogged rail and simply drags itself up the mountain. The station is located in the small town of Manitou Springs, a few miles from Colorado Springs. On they way up you get a live running commentary from a local guide pointing out the physical and natural changes as you ascend from 6,500 ft. to over 14,000 ft.

The mountain is simply beautiful. My lame prose won't do it justice but the ascent from warm sunny blue skies in Manitou Springs through lush forest, boulder strewn canyons, scree slopes, up past the tree line and out into the barren, snow-capped cold mountain summit air was stunning. With autumn just arriving the trees were turning a million shades of green and brown. A light breeze wafted through the trees and leaves fluttered down in the sunlight. The excellent commentary pointed out natural formations, the different types of flora and fauna along the way along with a history of the railway and its developments and various attempts to colonise the mountain.

At the top is the inevitable gift shop and restaurant which I'm sure takes advantage of the light headed oxygen starved ground dwellers but the prices were reasonable and merchandise not tacky. The view of almost 200 miles across into neighbouring states (Kansas we were told) was huge in every sense of the word. A three hour round trip with 45 minutes at the summit will be the best $30 you ever spend.

In the afternoon went to The Garden of the Gods. A local park just outside Manitou Springs. The word 'park' doesn't really do it justice; it's more like a geology reserve. Outstanding sandstone outcrops, boulders and formations. It sort of reminded me of Monument Valley on a small scale, the kind of scenery thay used as a backdrop for 50's Westerns. Worth a visit - and free to boot!

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Colorado Springs - Day 2

7.30am and I've just been outside for five minutes. The air is cool, crisp and clear. The mountain backdrop to Colorado Springs is arrayed before me like an Ansel Adams photograph. The landscape here is much more natural. There's almost an alpine feel to the architecture - houses are built on the contours of the land, as opposed to being on land that has been bulldozed and manicured. This place gets a lot of snow in the winter and the houses have a chalet style to them I had not expected

The hotel in Orlando was businesslike and functional and had everything you need. The hotel in Colorado Springs is a much more laid back affair. It seems to be staffed by teenagers in jeans and t-shirts who seem to have just wandered in to do a bit of work. They still supply everything you need but in a much more relaxed atmosphere.....and they have marmalade. Bliss.

Off to Pike's Peak.


Phase two of my fortnight in the US and I find myself in Colorado Springs. Arrived early afternoon, it's now late evening. First impressions are it's much more my kind of place. After the slick commercialism of Orlando, Colorado Springs is a much more relaxed place. People you meet are still charming, polite and helpful but in a much more laid back manner. The smiles are more genuine, the people more normal, the weather more European.

Flew from Atlanta across a cloudless sky, a clear view from 35,000 feet down to an endless patchwork of fields. My colleague managed this snap from the plane which will give you an idea but doesn't give justice to the size or relentless continuity of the agriculture. I vaguely recall us doing a term in secondary school geography that discussed the midwest and the breadbasket of America and here it was writ large.

Scored an upgrade on my hire car and am happily driving round in a chunky 4x4 Ford Escape. The lady on the GPS system is keeping me on the right side of the road.

Colorado Springs is a manageable city. Tiny compared to the endless sprawl of Orlando and set against the stunning backdrop of the Rocky Mountain which tower over the city I think I'll enjoy my week here.

Tomorrow we ascend Pike's Peak and visit The Garden of the Gods. I thought the Americans only had one God but apparently more are acceptable here.

I'm retiring now as I'm so veh veh tired. I have to find three Chileans in the morning.